mental strength

Roger Federer on Re-Inventing Himself, His Top Three Grand Slam Wins, Mental Strength and Retirement

Roger Federer is a man of many talents, and giving honest and stirring interviews is no exception. On Tuesday evening at the Manhattan Hotel in Rotterdam, Federer participated in a JURA coffee sponsorship event, where he was interviewed in front of exclusive guests before participating in a media conference. Federer reminisced on his top three grand slam wins, spoke on overcoming obstacles and becoming mentally strong, elaborated on his love for tennis, and gave his thoughts on retirement.

Roger Federer sat, calm and relaxed, fielding questions that brought guests and journalists to both laughter and astonishment on several occasions. Dissecting a champion’s brain is no easy task, but Federer always brings new inspirations to the table.

After former ATP professional and current Rotterdam tournament director Richard Krajicek was presented with a limited edition Roger Federer coffee machine from JURA as a token of appreciation, Federer was quick to recall Krajicek’s everlasting presence in tennis. It seems that any bad blood between the two that occurred at the end of last year when Federer opposed Krajicek’s candidacy for the ATP CEO position has washed away.

“I remember when [Krajicek] won Wimbledon [in 1996] … and he beat one of my heros back then, Pete Sampras, along the way. It’s great to see him again and still around tennis because I think it’s nice when legends and great players are still seen within the sport.”

In going back to his own history with Sampras, the only meeting between the two occurred at the 2001 Wimbledon where Federer prevailed in five sets over his hero. In those days, serve-and-volley style dominated the game. But today, the courts and technology have been built so that courts are slower, balls heavier, rallies longer, and this has all been done, as some speculate, to increase the entertainment factor for tennis fans.

“To some degree I wish that we had serve-and-volleyers in the game, but players just move and return and serve so well today that it really makes it difficult to come to the net, and then you get into the habit of playing from the baseline mostly. It’s really gotten different since I started because I did play Sampras, Krajicek, Henman and that generation, and I do miss that.” Federer then joked: “[The baseline style] doesn’t worry me too much yet, but if it stays like this for another 20 years, then I will start to worry!”

Federer was also quick to point out that “there is definitely not the outright clay-court specialist anymore or a true grass-court specialist. I think they have all merged together and today, you have to be able to play on any surface. You saw that in Davis Cup as well, as sometimes a home court advantage and choosing your own surface [as Federer’s Swiss team did], is not such an advantage anymore. We lost 5-0 this past weekend; Germany picked clay as well at home and lost 5-0 as well, so I think today players can really play on all surfaces.”

As a junior, Federer was often seen in tears following defeat and in recalling what made the difference for him during those early years, he concluded that “the biggest improvement that I have been able to make is the mental part. I used to be quite crazy when I was younger, and I eventually got my act together and started to understand why it’s so important to work hard. Once I started to work extremely hard, all of a sudden, I had this really fluid game and I was able to unlock my potential — which I knew was big but I didn’t know it was this great. I’m really amazed overall how well I’ve done.”

To hear Federer say those words reaffirms that nothing in life comes easy, even for a champion that holds countless records, including 16 grand slams and 70 career titles. People may be gifted and talented, but without the proper supplement of training and support, the world may have quickly ended up in short supply of grand slam tennis champions.

“You always have to re-invent yourself; come up with different ideas of how you can improve as a person and as a player. For me, it’s been a great evolution through the rankings from back in ’98 when I was a junior to today, and [how] the game has changed tremendously… I never thought I could play such good tennis. I really had to put in a lot of hard work. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because it’s all so fluid and people give me so many compliments. But I did put in the hard work and there’s no way around that in the professional game of tennis.”

As he alluded to earlier, Federer credits his success to equal parts mental strength, fitness and technique, and talks about “tennis as an emotional sport” when you are just starting out in the smaller Futures and Challenger tournaments. To transition overnight to playing top players on a center court is “not so easy … as that can play a lot of tricks on your mind, and fighting your own demons is a difficult thing. I had them as well when I was younger … afraid of the unknown and [asking yourself questions] ‘How confident are you?’ and ‘Are you doing the right things?’ A lot of open questions is sometimes a difficult thing to handle — especially if you bring in the pressure, the travels and the tiredness of it all … I think if you work hard, are smart and have enough breaks, the right tournaments and schedule, the results will follow. That is my personal opinion.”

It looks like Federer has taken his own advice in conquering his “demons” and is one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. But some opponents still stump the Swiss maestro, including Rafael Nadal whom he holds a 9-18 losing record against, and Novak Djokovic, the current world number 1.

“I think the ranking doesn’t lie in our sport. I think Novak has had the best year in the last 360 somewhat days of all of us, otherwise he wouldn’t have won so many matches in a row. I think the big difference at this very moment is that he has more confidence than we do … But maybe I do struggle more against Nadal and maybe he’s the toughest competitor out there, but the other guys are equally strong, if not better at the moment, like Novak.”

And what of his current streak of not winning a major since the 2010 Australian Open?

“I think it’s in the details. I don’t think I have done a whole lot wrong. Obviously, things have changed in the last few years since having a family but I don’t put that down to less success. I just think I was extremely close but wasn’t able to push luck on my side. I had an extremely tough last year at the Grand Slam level to be honest; I think I could have won [the matches I played in].” (Click here to see video of Federer answering this question.)

Never one to deflate himself, Federer took the opportunity to sit back and recall his three fondest memories of his best grand slam wins, with the first one being his first slam final win at the tender age of 21, at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships against Australian Mark Philppoussis.

“Maybe the first one just because it’s got to be!” Federer remarked. After losing in the first rounds of both the 2002 French Open and Wimbledon, and then following it up with another first round exit at the 2003 French Open, “critics were coming up and saying ‘This guy has talent, but he’ll probably never do it.’ And thank God I won Wimbledon months later,” he joked. “It was a huge relief. After that, everything seemed to hold much easier and clearer because I knew where my strengths are, where my weaknesses are and managing them. It was the ultimate dream achieved for me, winning Wimbledon, where Becker, Edberg, Sampras, all of my heroes, won so many times.”

His next memory was unexpectedly the 2005 US Open final where he beat Andre Agassi, the American’s last slam final appearance. “Playing under the lights, in New York, it’s somehow special and electrifying … The crowds were the toughest that I ever had to endure because I think people thought that Agassi was maybe going to retire if he would have beaten me … It was such a tough match to come through and the emotions were different. It proved to me that I was a worthy number 1 in the world and a good grand slam match player.”

Federer then recalled his win at the 2009 French Open “just because I chased it for so long.”  But it doesn’t end there. “The French Open has to be in there, but for some reason, I also have to put in when I was going for my fifth Wimbledon [in 2007] or the ultimate grand slam record at 15 against [Andy] Roddick in 2009 [at Wimbledon where Federer won 16-14 in the fifth set]. Those two matches had something mystical about them. Borg and Sampras were sitting there and all of my heroes were there. There was “record” pressure all around me and I was sort of a character in a play. So, for me to get that Cinderella finish was amazing.”

Being in a fairytale has its disadvantages, but Federer will never admit it. With the ruggedness and brutality of today’s game, it’s rare that a player is not nursing an injury or battling exhaustion from traveling. And after 13 years on the professional tour, Federer still rarely turns down the opportunity to be an outspoken promoter of tennis, even when his schedule is packed with commitments.

“I like when there is an excitement and a buzz for tennis. I am happy when I can promote tennis in a different part of the world than just Switzerland … so I don’t mind all of the stress I have [from doing these events], I really don’t. I was aware that it was going to happen and I was prepared for it … It’s just a natural thing for me today and it gives me an opportunity to also give great stories, meet great people and I don’t mind that part of my job which is part of the joy.”

Outside of his family and friends, another aspect of his life that brings him great joy is his Foundation with the simple mission “I am Tomorrow’s Future,” and he talked about how his involvement will grow once he is no longer playing professional tennis.

“I think the involvement in a few years’ time is going to be a whole lot different. I will have a lot more time to travel and see the projects, go and do more fundraising potentially, and meet more influential people in the field of philanthropy.”

He then touched on the charity his mother instilled in his heart, and also the influence Andre Agassi played in starting his Foundation.

“My mom has always reminded me that when I do have the opportunity to give back in some shape or form, it doesn’t always need to be financially, it can also be something you donate, like time, going to a project, and helping other projects. I also remember Andre Agassi always saying that he should have started his Foundation a whole lot earlier. That quote resonated with me and I thought I would like to start somewhat early and see how it goes.”

And in many ways, Federer’s and Agassi’s Foundations have similar purposes of granting children the help to reach their full potential.

“My dream has always been to support kids ages 5 to 14 in some shape or form, [especially] through education … I am a believer that education is not something you can take away from someone, but can be translated to other people in a very positive way. We have many different projects we support all around Africa, some in South Africa, some in Zimbabwe, in Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania as well. We have had many different countries we have been looking at and we will be expanding more over time and as we are able to raise more money.”

But there is still time before Federer will devote himself more exclusively to his charities and retire his tennis racquet. Recently, Serena Williams stated that she no longer “loves” tennis and Federer agrees that “love of the game is not enough. You need to have the fire and wanting to become better or achieve more.” But unlike Williams in many ways, he is not afraid to show his dedication to the game by stating that playing is still “clearly on my agenda. I would like to re-live the great moments I’ve had, such as Wimbledon. Everybody says, ‘What’s the point of winning another Wimbledon?’ That’s exactly the point. I want to be there hopefully one more time, holding up the trophy, going through the goosebumps before match point, trying to show how good I still am for my team, my country, myself. There’s too many reasons not to be playing, and I’m in physically really good shape today and I feel better than I have in quite a few years.”

That is precisely the reason he is committed to playing an unusually tough schedule this year, including Davis Cup last week, Rotterdam (a tournament he has not played since winning it in 2005), Dubai, and the Summer London Olympics.

“I have a tough schedule that shows I’m very eager and trying to also maybe get back to world number 1. There are still so many things to achieve … Some of the media think ‘What else is there to achieve?’ Well, there’s always more to do in something that you really enjoy. So for me, there’s no reason to even think about how, and when, and what retirement will look like, or how it’s all going to happen. Because I think the moment you start asking yourself those questions, that means the end is near. The body will tell me, and my family, we’ll decide when it’s time for me to hang up the racquet. For the time being, I really enjoy it too much to stop.”

 

(Roger Federer interview transcript, press conference photo, and YouTube video courtesy of Tennis Grandstand writer, Lisa-Marie Burrows, who is in Rotterdam for the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament as media.)

ATP Tidbits: Djokovic’s Humor, Ryan Harrison as Role Model, and the ‘Worst Job in Sports’

Since coverage of the US Open has been quite extensive this year, I’ll stick to the lighter side of tennis for this week and bring you the fun off-court moments. I’ll take a look at Novak Djokovic’s humorous ways, talk about the ‘worst job in sports,’ bring you tennis’ newest role model teenager Ryan Harrison, and talk about my thoughts on what may be going on with Andy Murray in his recent third round exit at the US Open — and it’s not his lack of mental strength or coach. I’m citing a different culprit altogether.

Djokovic, the comedian, gaining American fans quickly

In what was one of the most hotly contested first-round matches, Novak Djokovic squeezed out a win against compatriot and good friend Viktor Troicki in five sets, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. But the story wasn’t all in the tennis itself. As temperatures on-court soared to above 120-degrees and the humidity wreaked havoc, Djokovic’s respiratory problems were once again the center of attention. He could have lost in the fourth set, but as luck would have it, the shade came onto Arthur Ashe stadium and relieved Djokovic of some of his woes. He quickly took advantage of the slightly cooler temps and came out the winner.

Novak Djokovic. August 31, 2010

After the match, ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert asked Djokovic on-court: “How nice was it out here to get a little bit of shade?” As Djokovic searched for words, the first analogy that came to mind was that “it was like a ‘sleeping with my girlfriend’ kind of feeling.” The crowd roared in laughter and Gilbert became noticeably embarrassed. But whatever, Djokovic was relieved that he pulled out the win.

His press conference following his win was one for the books. The Serbian “Djoker” seems to be building his American audience base and is getting more confident in his humor once again. It’s nice to see Djokovic back at his lighter, more confident ways – both on and off the court.

If you have a chance, see the live video of his presser as his facial expressions and comedy are ten times better than on paper, you won’t be sorry! Starts at the 5:31 mark.

What is the ‘Worst Job in Sports?’

Ever read the Wall Street Journal to get your tennis fix for the day? Honestly, neither have I. But Tom Perrotta of Tennis.com fame wrote an interesting article in the WSJ a couple of days ago concerning the ‘worst job in sports.’ And guess what it was. Being a tennis coach.

Brad Gilbert, former coach to Andy Murray and current ESPN Commentator.

For all the glitz and glamour we think coaches have in traveling with their athlete(s) and staying at plush hotels in destinations we can only dream of going to, there is a down-side of being a tennis coach. If you’re lucky enough to be a wanted elite coach, then you could probably live comfortably on the money you make as everything else is paid for by the player. But what if your player is not winning or progressing? You’re either ‘out’ or your pay doesn’t change much. Players seem to change coaches every few years anyway, looking for a new outlook or support system.

I can’t even eat leftovers for two days in a row, how can I expect players to stay with the same coach for more than two YEARS in a row? It’s an interesting concept that is often overlooked by the casual sports fan. In other sports, where managers and executives pick their coaches, tennis is unique in that the actual athlete picks the coach. For further reading on this, check out Perrotta’s article as he talks to greats such as Larry Stefanki, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert, Mats Wilander, Patrick Mouratoglou, and Bob Brett: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703946504575469961990822120.html

Ryan Harrison. Title? Role model

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’re familiar with the newest talent that has developed right under our eyes, Ryan Harrison. After coming through qualifying and taking out veteran Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, 18-year-old Harrison took Sergiy Stakhovsky to five sets in a match that lasted over four hours. In fact, Harrison held three match points in the fifth set tiebreaker before double-faulting on his last opportunity and allowing Stakhovsky to serve for the win, which he did.

Although Harrison lost, it doesn’t make his run any less fruitful or devoid of fans. The grace and calm which he exhibited after his defeat speak volumes to his character, and those around him agree. “He has wide open ears, always willing to learn, wanting to grow and develop,” said Tracy Austin, a former World #1. “I love his attitude, and his work ethic as well.”

Ryan Harrison. September 3,2010.

In his press conference, Harrison was quick to say that he has a lot to work on before becoming a “full-time tour player.” I’m just going to keep my head down, and work as hard as I can and listen to the people I trust and develop my game. I’ve got a lot of work to do. From the time I get back home until my next tournaments, my goal is going to be improving my game until I can be a consistent contender, and the ranking and all that stuff will take care of itself.” Parents, if you have any youth looking for a young capable role model, Ryan Harrison is it.

Could Andy Murray’s problem be …. mono?

You’ve all probably heard about Andy Murray’s surprising third-round exit to Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka by now. But I wonder if you’ve thought about precisely ‘Why?’ Forget about lack of desire, mental stability, or coach, Murray may have a different ailment altogether. During the match, he called the trainer twice, once for “tightness in my quad” and the second time because he felt “pins and needles around my right elbow.”

Andy Murray bent over two different times during his match against Stan Wawrinka. September 5, 2010.

At his press conference Murray stated plain and simple that “I lost to the better player, that’s all there is to say.” However, when questions were raised about his physical capabilities he couldn’t pinpoint the problem and this made me wonder. Murray is known for his physical strength and being able to outlast his opponents, so something has to be up.

Andy Muray: “I was disappointed that I was struggling physically. You know, I tried to find a way to come back. Didn’t quite do it. Yeah, I was disappointed that I’ve not been really in that position for a long time. I still feel like I’m super fit. I just didn’t feel great. You know, there was a lot of things that I was feeling on the court. But, yeah, I just haven’t felt that way for a few years now. So I’m going to have to go look at why that was the case and try and get better.”

Anyone know where I’m going with this? Well, if Andy Roddick’s recent tumble gives any hint, my speculation is that Murray may be suffering from a mild case of mononucleosis as well. I’m no doctor, but that fact that he can’t pinpoint his problem and was “struggling physically” remind me of Roddick’s statement earlier this year when he said he wasn’t feeling strong enough mentally or physically and couldn’t fathom why. These players are in constant contact and mono travels like the plague in locker rooms and lounges. To me, this would spells disaster on tour as we’ve already seen Roger Federer and John Isner openly talk about their stint with mono. Here’s to hoping the ‘popular trend’ ends, but it could only get worse before it gets better.

ATP BONUS:

I picked up on a strange statistic at this year’s US Open. Not only are all four remaining men in Rafael Nadal’s quarter Spaniards, but there are a total of six Spaniards in the fourth round — that’s almost 38%! Did the US Open’s blue courts somehow turn into clay this year?! For a country known for producing talented clay-specialists, Spain is quickly turning into a force on all surfaces.

US Open: Why Top Players Lose

At the start of every tournament, a player’s slate is cleaned. Whether they’ve won the previous week’s tournament or failed to even qualify, in tennis, everything can change in a week. Player’s go on hot-streaks as well as cold-runs, losing to lower-ranked opponents who simply took advantage of the opportunity to play a big name in a big stadium at a big tournament. And this was the case in the opening rounds at this year’s US Open, where several seeds took early surprise exits.

On this big of a world stage, anything can happen: youngsters take out veterans and darkhorses, players finally fulfill their potential and take out higher-ranked opponents, and heat favors the mentally strong ones. But why do the game’s elite succumb to players sometimes ranked 200 spots below them? It is simply nerves? Yes and no.

After a loss, we sometimes hear the top-seeded players give the easy answer: blaming the wind and crowd, grasping at any phantom injury they could think of, and overall citing their games’ weaknesses instead of their opponents’ clear strengths as the deciding factor. What they fail to mention, is the state of their psyche. For a sport so dependent on mental strength, it seems strange that players don’t talk about that more often. Mental fortitude was clearly the culprit that kept Tomas Berdych from breaking through until earlier this year in Miami. Like him, many players have the talent, the tennis I.Q., the physical strength, yet simply lack the stability in the mind to come back from 0-5, 0-40 down. After all, tennis players are still human, though as fans, we tend to build them into superheroes. But, as evident by Roger Federer’s struggles this year claiming only two titles, even superheroes can falter.

Kei Nishikori of Japan. September 2, 2010

Take, for example, Kei Nishikori’s second round defeat of #11 Marin Cilic yesterday. Not only did the match almost break the record for the longest match at the US Open at a whopping 4 hours and 59 minutes, but Nishikori handed Cilic a breadstick in the fifth set, 6-1. Cilic is no slacker however. He overtook both Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick at the year’s first slam, the Australian Open, to reach the semis, beat Rafael Nadal in Beijing last October, took out Andy Murray in straight sets at last year’s US Open, and has been firmly planted in the top 20 since January of 2009. Nishikori, on the other hand, is ranked #147 in the world and even fell out of the rankings earlier this year due to an elbow injury sustained last year. He’s on a comeback trail and clearly using his experiences away from tennis to fire himself up in his game. After the 3-hour mark of a match, fitness can no longer be cited as the culprit for a player’s loss, as clearly both are fit to last the scorching New York sun. After 4 hours, it’s all about mental strength and who can stay focused and ‘win ugly’ better. With the first four sets being marginally close, the 6-1 score in the fifth set is pretty telling of who lasted longer mentally.

Americans Ryan Harrison and Beatrice Capra

Then, there are those youngsters who have absolutely nothing to prove and walk away with a great victory over a top player. Ryan Harrison’s defeat of #15 Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, or Beatrice Capra’s advancement to the second round including a win over #18 Arvane Rezai shows another side to why seemingly great and capable players lose to relative nobodys. After having lost her chance to get a wildcard into the US Open by losing in the Girls’ 18 national tournament, Capra went home to Ellicott City, MD to “chill.” She then received a call from the USTA to play in their wildcard playoff tournament and voila, she got into the main draw as a wildcard after all. Harrison, on the other hand, went through the qualifying tournament and had match-play under his belt when he took on Ljubicic. With both Rezai and Ljubicic, you could say the heat and nerves were a factor as neither had played a match in days and perhaps weren’t acclimated. But with their gutsy defeats, Harrison and Capra say the rest is “just bonus.” The youngsters had more time on court, nothing to lose, and increased confidence in their game. Their competitors simply weren’t prepared and couldn’t study their opponents in time.

World #214, Andreas Haider-Maurer. August 30, 2010

And that brings up another reason why top players struggle in the opening rounds: the relative lack of knowledge about their lower-ranked opponents’ game. The elite play each other week-in and week-out, and know what to expect in another’s shots, playing style and strategy. Journeymen, however, travel the futures and challengers circuits struggling to win but tend to have a strange familiarity with the top players’ games when they are slated against each other. The journeymen already know the ins and outs of the top opponent’s play, as they’ve either watched them live, on tv, or perhaps even grown up admiring them. The top dog, on the other hand, may never have even heard of his opponent. Now, how do you study and learn someone’s game who you’ve never even heard of? Well, if you have a smart enough coach, you would scope out the player’s previous match. This can be time-consuming and even often prove unreliable since players at that level are inconsistent and may simply win by default because of their opponent’s more aggressive, but error-filled, play. All in all, if you’re a ‘Djokovic’ taking on a ‘Jesse Witten’ like in last year’s third round at the US Open, you may become easily frustrated when your 276-ranked opponent is blowing you off the court with his forehand and unexpected lateral speed. Four days ago, we saw a similar pattern in Robin Soderling’s opening match against 23-year-old Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer. Haider-Maurer, currently ranked 214, not only won the third set tiebreak but also won the fourth set, forcing a fifth. He barely lost 6-4 in the fifth to a man who has commandingly beaten both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent times. It’s interesting watching Haider-Maurer stay cool and collected while Soderling scrambled to figure out his opponent.

Another factor during a match also includes the high heat and humidity, but which player does this favor, the journeyman or top dog? In short, neither. While it’s easy to think that the top players have gotten to the top precisely because their fitness overcame the heat, in reality, fitness almost becomes null at this level of the game. It’s a strange concept to analyze, but it makes more sense when you realize that the scorching heat envelopes everyone’s lungs, legs and head in the same way. Rarely do players have the upper hand when play gets heavy, dragged out, sloppy and almost slow-motion. The big guys, like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling seem to be exceptions and all have speed, strength and stamina. But how do players like Michael Llodra outplay and outwit ones like #7 Tomas Berdych in the first round? Or how Robert Kendrick was able to take Gael Monfils to 6-4 in the fifth set, or Viktor Troicki take Novak Djokovic to 6-3 in the fifth as well? Or even how newly-fit Mardy Fish was forced to five sets against Jan Hajek, even while winning three of them 6-0, 6-0, 6-1? Tennis is a strange sport and it is hard enough picking winners on any given day when the weather is mild. Throw in 140-degree temperatures on-court with not a single cloud in the sky, and you have the recipe for any top player’s nightmare. At these temperatures it’s hard to argue that a win comes about because of fitness or physical capabilities when neither player retires from the match. Instead it seems to favor the one who is able to squeak by with a few more winners and more playing experience on a big stage. Both players are battling the same demon and this is when mental toughness sets the two players apart.

Tomas Berdych. September 1, 2010

The first three days at the US Open were filled with storylines about cinderella stories and other notable exits by top players, such as Andy Roddick going out to Janko Tipsarevic in surprising fashion. But as tennis fans we expect this sort of drama to happen. In fact, it’s almost a pre-requisite to viewer involvement; it’s what makes tennis so exciting and unpredictable. But then one question still remains for me: why do we insist on calling all of these losses ‘surprise exits’ if we expect them to inevitably happen? What’s your take?